Discover Arvo Pärt, His Music and Silence

Arvo Pärt among students of the University of Tartu

Arvo Pärt – the world’s most performed and surely most beloved living composer – amongst students of the University of Tartu after the seminar on 20 November 2013. In the background on the left: Professor Toomas Siitan. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Who doesn’t know Arvo Pärt? He is the world’s most performed living composer and arguably the most beloved as well. In late May, he accompanied the Grammy-winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra on their performances of his music in New York’s Carnegie Hall and in Washington, D.C. Some days before embarking on this tour, the musicians performed their programme of Arvo Pärt’s  music at the University of Tartu Assembly Hall:

It was the jewel in the crown of the year-long series of lectures on Arvo Pärt’s music by the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre Professor Toomas Siitan, with greatly awaited appearances by the famous albeit shy composer himself, who served as an invited Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Tartu last academic year.

Although Arvo Pärt has never been verbose about his work, noting that his word is the sound (in this sense, the final concert carried his most important message), the composer’s presence during the course felt essential and special. As one of the seminar participants wrote in an essay:

I don’t want to use big words, but the first seminar and meeting over the video bridge to the composer’s home created a strange and wonderful atmosphere. I felt a part of something very special, and you could see that the participants were moved. I later described this experience as the result of a great work of self-improvement. The composer has arrived to a place where many don’t even start their journey.

Why did our Faculty of Philosophy seek out Arvo Pärt for this position in the first place? As the dean, Professor of Practical Philosophy Margit Sutrop, put it in her welcome speech:

We think that the University of Tartu, as a ‘universitas’ and the meeting point of all sciences, is a good place to examine the effect of music in philosophical, theological, cultural, and even mathematical terms.

Margit Sutrop introduces Arvo Pärt course

Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy Professor Margit Sutrop introduces the course on Arvo Pärt’s music. The composer participates in the opening seminar via Skype. Image credit: Andres Tennus

How are these aspects intertwined? Music expert Toomas Siitan acknowledged that the essential goal of Arvo Pärt’s music is silence: “The sounds, similarly to words, can only hint at the essential. The real always remains between the sounds.” Philosopher Margit Sutrop found this very inspiring and close to the concepts of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger.

The seventh proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus states: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Heidegger talks about aletheia, the opening of presence, as an empty space, a clearing between the trees.

Arvo Pärt signs an autograph for a Tartu University student

Arvo Pärt signs an autograph for a student after the seminar. Image credit: Andres Tennus

Thus, the course participants not only listened to the words spoken and the sounds played, but – perhaps more importantly – to what is behind and between them. What did they hear? In their essays, students repeatedly mention the experience of silence and a different sense of time running at a slower pace:

While listening to Pärt, I almost always find myself in a slower  time than usual. I mean my subjective time flow slows down. I’d leave the question about the existence of any time other than subjective open here. The fact is that time advances more slowly, and the present moment extends. The past and the future gradually lose their significance and the sound leads. Until it ends. The sounds created by Pärt are exquisitely tuned to last exactly as long as it is necessary.

* * *

What makes the music of Arvo Pärt special for me is the sense of silence and detachment. Just as you can enter another world by reading a good book, Pärt’s music closes out the noise of today’s world.

* * *

I have quite an impatient and hot-tempered character. I like crowded streets and being part of a large company. Despite this, I adore music that contains air and silence between the sounds, music that does not rush and is capable of creating something magical out of few notes and the connecting pauses. For me, this magic obviously hides in silence.

* * *

In order to really hear, you have to open your senses, the heart, and the soul. You have to let the music touch the strings of your soul, for as Pärt has said, the most tender instrument of all is human soul. You have to step out of your comfort zone, the daily routine. Take time. Wait.

* * *

It feels as if Pärt’s music creates more time… You are tempted to think that this music has absorbed so much time and therefore there is less time left around it. Sure enough, the music has not stripped anyone of their time; still it has this strange abundance of time within it. You put this music on, and where it plays, there is suddenly much more time and less hastiness. I thought it must be some sort of special spirituality that creates this odd effect. <…> But in listening to this course, I started to think that perhaps this odd time phenomenon is due to the extreme order in Pärt’s music. It is because when you pack in an orderly manner, more different stuff fits in, and surely more time as well.

Arvo Pärt and students at the University of Tartu

A joyful moment during the Arvo Pärt seminar. Image credit: Andres Tennus

So why is the world, including ourselves in the first place, rushing away in a hurry? Are achieving, obtaining, and becoming overestimated? After the end of the course, Arvo Pärt made one last surprise appearance at the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Philosophy. His address to the fresh master’s graduates was very different from the usual commencement speeches. Pärt said nothing about future achievements, fancy positions, or important roles. Instead, he said: “I wish that you all may remain this nice throughout your lives”:

To hear and discover Arvo Pärt’s music, you need to set aside some time and find a place. Those who have done so confirm that it’s worth it: Pärt’s music gives essentially more time back than it takes.

See the materials and videos of the Arvo Pärt course (in Estonian).

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